How to Review Something That's Good
You read Roger Ebert and watch Nostalgia Critic religiously. You've read everything on film theory and the history of film. You sit down with your popcorn, ready to give a no-hold-barred beat-down to Hollywood's latest mindless, corporate-driven, derivative garbage. You turn on your TV and...
To your surprise and horror, the movie you intended to review online in a comical but scathing critique is... actually pretty good?
Say it ain't so!
See, internet critics make their bread and butter by making fun of bad stuff. That's what gets clicks and views, when you say something really funny but mean about something that sucks. But if movies were all suck, all the time, nobody would watch them. And you don't want to just be a one-trick pony known to just rudely rage about everything, picking apart minor flaws in everything, even great beloved classics like Lord of the Rings and Jaws just to get internet points. Then you'll be accused of just being negative for the sake of it, which is not fun and also pisses people off.
But it IS harder to think of something to say when a movie is good than when it isn't. Bad movies have all these quirks and problems that stand out to the trained eye. Some bad movies have problems that are obvious to everyone, and we seek internet articles that validate our noticing of these flaws. With a bad movie, it's also easy to talk about what went wrong in detail, and from that you can usually gain a lot of insight into how to make a good movie.
I do this as a writer, I listen to people's opinions on what went wrong with notoriously bad novels, in order to better understand how I could write a novel that doesn't suck as much. It's good to know how to avoid pitfalls from seeing other people walk into them.
But, I don't want online film criticism to just be a cesspool of negativity. Criticism does not equal negativity. The purpose of criticism is to improve the arts with constructive feedback. You have to strike a balance somewhere between praising everything and hating everything. Praise everything, and you have no standards. Hate on everything, and you're impossible to please. So either way, people shouldn't really listen to your opinion.
But when a movie is good, do you struggle with trying to come up with what to say about it? I did, and here are some of my ideas to help with that.
Discuss the Context
In art history, we learned a lot about putting works of art in their contexts. That meant knowing about the time, place, culture, politics, etc. that represent the setting in which the work of art was created. Now, that's even easier for a modern film than it is for say, a 17th century painting, because we have a lot of information, lots of detail, about our own time period.
Whether a movie is good or bad, it's helpful to introduce it as part of its larger context. Some people like "auteur theory", which emphasizes the creative decision-making of directors. But, movies are a collaborative art form, so it's not just the director's film; it is also influenced by the author of the source material, the screen writer(s), the actors and actresses, the makeup, set design, costume design, special effects teams, etc. So you can find out who all these people are using Wikipedia, IMDB, and so on, find out about their backgrounds. Get interviews about the movie online.
For bad movies, sometimes this can lead to insights about what went wrong. For example, Jared Leto revealed in interviews that in Suicide Squad, a movie that was almost obnoxiously bad, they had cut out a ton of footage of him as the Joker, and most fans were disappointed by a relative lack of Jared Leto in the film, since it was not what the studio had told us via trailers to expect. Trailers made it look like a movie about the Joker and Harley Quinn, when instead it was a movie largely about Deadshot and Harley Quinn and some minor DC characters they found in Gotham's basement, with hardly any Joker scenes at all. So, understanding context for a bad film can help you identify what went wrong. Then you can make suggestions for the movie-makers to do something better in the future.
But what about a good film? Sometimes, you have to ask, who made it great? Did a great director make up for a weak plot? Did a powerful acting performance make up for lousy direction? Sometimes this happens, but in a truly good film, all the people involved are good, or at least fairly competent. One thing that's fun is to talk about improvement. You can talk about how actresses, actors, writers, and directors who didn't get it right before really nailed it with this one. Then, by comparing their previous failures to the current success, you can explore what was done differently this time.
Discuss Cultural Impact
It's often said by critics that movies don't exist in a vacuum. What that means is, movies are shaped by culture, and they shape culture in turn, especially if they're significantly popular. Storytelling has a lot of emotional pull with people, and has for centuries, even before we had motion pictures. We've been telling fictional stories as human beings probably for as long as we've been talking. They fill up time we spend on tedious activities, socially connect us, and are just plain enjoyable.
And unless you're reviewing some dusty old movie nobody's heard of, the movie you're talking about likely will have a cultural impact, for better or worse. Analyzing a movie for cultural impact gets into the literary criticism styles like gender studies, Marxist, queer studies, colonial studies, psychoanalytic theory, and so on. A lot of this has been done to death with that canon of classic literature everyone studies in high school and college, but there's a lot more room to discuss this stuff in reference to contemporary blockbuster movies, because those have mass popularity, and thus a greater cultural impact on today's society.
So, whether a movie is good or bad is more or less irrelevant to these types of discussions. You're focusing on a subset of sociology, such as race, gender, sexuality, institutions, class, politics, group psychology, etc., and simply analyzing the movie's depiction of such things. A typical analysis might answer a question like one of the following:
- Is Moana a respectful depiction of Pacific Islander culture? Why or why not? What could it do better in this regard?
- Do movies about Santa Claus tie in with ideas about class, like the prosperity gospel and the Protestant work ethic? (Did I just ruin Christmas?) How do they relate to Christian beliefs?
- When Harry Potter sacrifices himself to kill Voldemort, the author J.K. Rowling is deliberately drawing a parallel between her character and Jesus, and comparing Voldemort to Satan. Why do you think she did that?
- Why doesn't Lord of the Rings' Fellowship of the Ring include any female characters? What does that say about how J. R. R. Tolkien probably viewed gender roles?
This is irrespective of whether a movie is bad or good. Even bad movies hated by critics can make a lot of money and get seen by a lot of people, so they still have a significant cultural impact. You can discuss movies both as products of culture and as influencers on culture. And a good movie is likely to have a cultural impact, to become iconic or legendary, given lasting fame above and beyond the fleeting fame of other popular-at-the-time, but not truly great, movies. Some movies have obvious themes and ideas, some are even obvious about preaching a particular moral message. But all movies can be analyzed this way, which takes out simplistic value judgments, like "87% on Rotten Tomatoes", replacing them with nuanced views that study multiple facets of the movie's story.
Discuss What Made it Good
Sometimes, when I see a particularly good movie, like The Lego Movie, I'm just blown away. I mean, when you see so many movies, and become so familiar with the tropes used to write movie stories, it's hard to be truly surprised, truly immersed in the world of a movie. I kind of miss being a kid and being able to like movies like Wild Wild West and The Mask of Zorro because I was not seeing them with a trained critical eye. If a movie was an entertaining spectacle, I didn't give a shit about the plot. But over time, for better or worse, my tastes evolved, and I got to where I started to analyze movies more and notice the finer details of movie storytelling more. It's a maturing process that takes several years of watching movies and studying movie tropes.
So now, when I see a bad movie, I find a lot to say about what was bad and why it was bad and what could be done differently to make it better. I could write volumes about Suicide Squad, or 50 Shades Darker, expounding in great detail on everything that went wrong and everything that could have been improved to make it a good, or passable, movie. But when I see a good movie, I'm just kind of awe-struck. It's kind of like if you imagine casting a high-level protection spell in an RPG and seeing some monster that's actually strong enough to charge right through it. You broke down my critic barrier! Impossible!
It also makes me wonder if my tastes are all that evolved. Did I like Ready Player One (the book) because it's well-written, or because I just loved all those nerd culture references? Did I like the Lego Movie because it's a good story, or because I just fell in love with the imaginative animation... and the nerd culture references? Is Age of Ultron that great, or do I just like superhero team movies (well, I think Suicide Squad answers that for me)? Etc. A good movie makes me question my taste.
But that can prompt a lot of discussion. I sometimes feel like a rookie archaeologist who found something unexpected, who then takes the artifact in question to more experienced experts for analysis. Doc, I think I found an actually good movie, what should we do? Since it's so much fun to bash bad movies and make fun of the flaws in mediocre movies, we sometimes forget that there's tremendous value in analyzing what makes good movies good, as well.
Here's some questions that might help you analyze what makes a good movie good:
- How did the first few minutes of the movie get my attention and interest?
- How was exposition and world-building handled?
- Did dialog in the movie sound natural, but still crisp and interesting? How did they do that?
- Was everything reasonably explained and realistic in terms of cause and effect? How did they show that actions have consequences?
- Was the ending good? If there was a twist ending, was it truly surprising and not obvious, but also not out of the blue? Did the ending mean the narrative reached a satisfying conclusion, or was it just a sequel hook?
Basically, think of things movies often screw up, and then you can talk about how the movie in question you talk about didn't. Examining what goes into a good movie gives wannabe film-makers ideas for how they can make a good movie, it shows that critics aren't impossible to please and yes, we do have achievable standards, and it gives people an idea of what you mean when you talk about something else being bad. Remember that "good" and "bad" films are relative terms, derived from comparison to other movies. So you can't really say a movie is good without comparing it to movies like it that are worse, and to say a movie is bad, it helps to compare it to similar movies that are better. For example, the bad fantasy movie Eragon can be compared to the good fantasy movie Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and you can see what went wrong with the former that the latter got right.
Talking about a good movie can be surprisingly challenging as a critic. You might say as a critic, your task is to point out problems and flaws, things that need to be fixed. So if a movie is damn near perfect, you might think you can't get anywhere from a discussion of it. And it's just plain fun to tear apart a bad movie, whereas a good movie is so well-respected that it almost seems mean to criticize it at all, almost sacrilege.
But I think a lot can be gained from talking about good movies in criticism. First, it's good to discuss context, both for the artists involved, and for the larger society the film is intended for. Also, discussing what makes a good movie good, getting into nitty-gritty specificity, enhances your critical observation and thinking skills. It's really easy to point and say "this movie is bad" or "this movie is good". But what critics do of importance and value to others is make actionable suggestions for how to improve the art of filmmaking for the future. You can do that from any movie, whether it's very good or very bad or anywhere in between. And the value judgment we place on a movie is not the end of all critical discussion that could arise from it, far from it.